How “popular” are Oscar-nominated movies?

20 August '18 3 Comments on How “popular” are Oscar-nominated movies?

A few weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced three changes coming to the Oscars from 2020:

  • Sooner – The ceremony will be held earlier than in previous years, moving from towards the end of February to towards the start.
  • Shorter – The telecast will be shorter, with ‘lesser’ awards announced during advertising breaks.
  • Studio-friendlier – The introduction of a new category “designed around achievement in popular film“.

The response from the industry was swift and largely negative. I’m not going to comment on the efficacy of the changes, but I am interested in looking at how ‘popular films’ have fared in Oscars past.

Presumably, part of the reason for the new category is that the Academy feels that many of the movies most enjoyed by film fans do not receive enough Oscar attention. Let’s test that theory.

Popularity can be defined as “the state or condition of being liked, admired, or supported by many people” and measured in a number of different ways.  For this article, I’m going to focus on three measures:

  • Highest Grossing” – Using North American theatrical box office gross to measure how many people saw the movie.
  • Best Reviewed” – Using Metascore (an average of top movie reviews, calculated out of 100) to track the level to which major film critics like and admire each movie.
  • Most Loved” – Using IMDb user scores (out of 10) to track the level to which ordinary film fans like and admire each movie.

How popular are Oscar-nominated ‘Best Films’?

We’ll start with the three awards aimed at the movies themselves – Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Animated Film.

95% of all movies nominated for ‘Best Picture’ at the Oscars over the past fifty years have been among the 50 best-reviewed films of their year.  And the same figure holds for the top 50 films as voted by IMDb users.  However, only 27% were ranked in the top 50 at the US box office.

Best Foreign Language Film nominees have similar levels of critical and audience love (as seen in the graph below), but only 0.8% were in the top 50. In fact, that’s just two movies – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

Animated films are much more likely to have been in the highest grossing cohort (61%) but far less likely to have critical and audience acclaim, when compared to the other two categories.  This is probably due to their higher budgets and therefore the need for them to gross well in order to recoup costs.

Do Oscar-nominated creatives get their Academy nod from popular movies?

Let’s turn to the key creative awards at the Oscars.

I looked at the films which gave directors, writers and actors their nominations. A similar pattern is seen to that of the best movie categories.  Top grossing films are rare, whereas films loved by critics and audiences are ubiquitous. 99% of all movies nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar have been in the film critics’ top 50 of that year.  The only three which bucked the trend were My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Sixth Sense and Gladiator.

In which Oscar categories do popular films do best?

Finally, let’s look at the Academy Awards for key crew roles. So far, we’ve seen a poor showing for the highest grossing movies, but within the crew roles there is much more love for the these massively minted movies.

57% of people nominated for “Sound Editing” Oscars received their recognition for working on the top 50 grossing movies of that year.  The same can be said for 54% of people nominated for Visual Effects Oscars and 36% of Makeup and hair nominees.

Are Oscar-nominated films the “best” films of the year?

As a quick bonus topic, I thought it would be fun to look at whether film critics and film audiences share the same tastes as Academy voters.  To do this, I identified which films had received a nomination in any of the six following categories:

  • Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Best Achievement in Directing
  • Best Writing, Original Screenplay
  • Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay
  • Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
  • Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

These are my ‘Major Oscar Nominated Films’.  In the twenty years between 1999 and 2018, 411 films fall into this category – one in ten of the 4,000 ‘top 200’ movies released during that period. As you can see, there is a heavy skew towards higher rated films, by both scales.  That said, it’s not a perfect correlation.  Some movies are overlooked by the Oscars (such as The Dark Knight which was scored 82 by critics and 9.0 by audiences), whereas others are overly rewarded (such as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which was nominated for Best Picture, despite only receiving 46 from critics and 6.9 from audiences).


The years represented on the final chart refer to the US theatrical release date of the movies featured.  A film released in 2017 will compete in the 2018 Oscars, so a chart showing films within “1998 to 2017” would be eligible for the Oscars between 1999 and 2018. Box office gross is not an ideal measure of cinema attendance as it does not take into account factors such as:

  • Different ticket prices between areas with differing taste (i.e. New York cinemas may charge more than a rural cinema, thereby inflating the popularity of movies most loved by New Yorkers).
  • Discounts for groups such as students, the elderly and Armed Forces personnel mean that these people will have a weaker influence than that of an adult, peak-time, full price cinema goer.
  • Premium ticket prices for 3D and IMAX movies, which will inflate the popularity of such movies when compared to the number of tickets sold.

Unfortunately, we don’t have reliable cinema ticket sales data and so the imperfect box office gross will have to suffice. I simplified the names of the Oscars for readability and also grouped awards which have changed name over time into one. Here is the longer explanation of each of my shortened names:

  • Best Picture – “Best Motion Picture of the Year” and “Best Picture”.
  • Best Foreign Language Film – “Best Foreign Language Film of the Year” and “Best Foreign Language Film”.
  • Best Animated Film – “Best Animated Feature Film of the Year” and “Best Animated Feature”.
  • Best Director – “Best Achievement in Directing,” and “Best Director”.
  • Screenplay – Original – “Best Writing, Original Screenplay”, “Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen”, “Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Material Not Previously Published or Produced”, “Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced” and “Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen”.
  • Screenplay – Adapted – “Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay”, “Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material”, “Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium” and “Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published”.
  • Best Actor (lead) – “Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role” and “Best Actor in a Leading Role”.
  • Best Actress (lead) – “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” and “Best Actor in a Supporting Role”.
  • Best Actor (supporting) – “Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role” and “Best Actress in a Supporting Role”.
  • Best Actress (supporting) – “Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role” and “Best Actress in a Supporting Role”.
  • Cinematography – “Best Achievement in Cinematography” and “Best Cinematography”.
  • Costume – “Best Achievement in Costume Design” and “Best Costume Design”.
  • Editing – “Best Achievement in Film Editing” and “Best Film Editing”.
  • Makeup/hair – “Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling”, “Best Achievement in Makeup” and “Best Makeup”.
  • Music (Score) – “Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures,” “Best Music, Score of a Musical Picture (Original or Adaptation)”. “Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score”, “Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation”, “Best Music, Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Best Adaptation Score”, “Best Music, Original Song Score”, “Best Music, Original Dramatic Score”, “Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score” and “Best Music, Original Score”.
  • Music (Song) – “Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures” and “Best Music, Original Song”.
  • Production Design – Best Achievement in Production Design”, “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration” and “Best Achievement in Art Direction”.
  • Sound Editing – “Best Achievement in Sound Editing”, “Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing”, “Best Sound Editing” and “Best Effects, Sound Effects””.
  • Sound Mixing – “Best Sound, Recording”, “Best Sound”, “Best Sound Mixing” and “Best Achievement in Sound Mixing”.
  • Visual Effects – “Best Achievement in Visual Effects”, “Best Effects, Special Visual Effects”, “Best Effects, Visual Effects” and “Best Visual Effects”.

I did not track nominees for the documentary or short film categories as they rarely reach the top 50 of any category.


Earlier this year The Lonely Island team were asked to pitch a song for the 2018 Oscars ceremony.  Their eventual idea was rejected, judged to be “financially and logistically impossible“. But luckily for us, their temp track and storyboard were released.  So sit back and enjoy the best argument for a popular film Oscar category film award every committed to verse:



  1. Hi Stephen. A big ” High 5″ and slap on the back for the interesting way in which you held the attention of the delegates attending your recent presentation at the July Durban Film Mart. The ‘Bird’s Eye View’ lecture was both interesting and amusing – it could have been extended had time permitted! So take care and keep up the sterling work, I circulate your industry reports to many of the young members of a group I mentor who have come to recognise them as prescribed reading matter. Cheers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stephen Follows